So, um, it was kind of a rough week for the Egyptian Museum, eh? Several news outlets reported that King Tutankhamun’s burial mask, arguably the most famous archeological item in the world and certainly the pride and joy of the Egyptian Museum, had its beard taken off last year, either because it was damaged during a cleaning (the popular suspicion) or because it was already falling off and needed to be restored (the museum’s official story).
OK, so Tut’s beard got broke. It’s a shame, but stuff happens, right? This kind of thing is exactly why museums pay people to care for and restore artifacts, right? Well, yeah, except unfortunately the effort to repair the damage in this case went terribly wrong. Either out of haste to get the mask back into the exhibit (the popular suspicion) or plain old incompetence (which, I guess, is the museum’s official story), the beard was glued back on to the mask with epoxy, and the job was done so carelessly that there’s now a thin but clearly visible crack, filled with opaque yellow dried epoxy, separating the beard from Tut’s chin.
Oops. The director of the museum, Mahmoud Halwagy, is insisting that whatever happened to the mask happened before he got the job in October (AKA the “it was like that when I got here” defense), but a group of Egyptologists called the “Egypt’s Heritage Task Force” are planning to bring evidence to prosecutors to see if charges can be levied at the responsible parties.
The problem is that epoxy is incredibly strong stuff, and not only is it inappropriate to use on a piece like this in general, but if you get the job wrong it becomes very difficult to separate the pieces and try again. Egyptian authorities hurriedly flew in a German restoration expert today to take a look at the botched repair job, and he declared that it would be possible to remove the glue and properly restore the piece, but we’ll see.
This is a big deal for Egypt not just because of the real value of this particular piece, but for the symbolic importance attached to Egyptian artifacts in general. For one thing, Egypt depends a great deal on tourism, and after three years of revolution, counter-revolution, violent suppression of protests caused by said counter-revolution, increasing terrorist activity in the Sinai, and general regional instability, Egypt is still struggling to get its tourist numbers back to where they were a few years ago. A story like this is the last thing the Egyptian tourism industry needed.
For another thing, one of the battles that Egypt’s antiquities officials are constantly waging is the effort to get foreign museums to repatriate important artifacts that were plundered from the country during its colonial period. The Egyptians want desperately for the British Museum, for example, to return the Rosetta Stone to Egypt, or for the Louvre to return any of several important Egyptian pieces that it houses. The chief argument those museums make when refusing to return the artifacts, the one argument they can make that doesn’t smack completely of colonial appropriation of another nation’s cultural heritage, is that the Egyptians can’t take care of what they already have, let alone these other pieces. It’s a low blow, but it’s not wrong either; anybody who’s ever visited the Egyptian Museum can attest to cases upon cases where stuff has basically just been tossed in for display without much concern for how it’s organized or what kind of care it’s getting. The case against repatriation on those grounds got stronger in 2011, when rioters used the Tahrir Square uprising to loot and destroy several artifacts in the Egyptian Museum, and in 2013, when the Malawi Museum in Minya was almost totally looted during the violence that followed the ouster of former President Mohammad Morsi (most of the artifacts have since been recovered, but the fact that it happened at all is the problem). A story like this is just going to add more weight to the argument that Egypt can’t be trusted with her own history.